by Danielle M. Mullen
From Fall 2018
If she hadn’t noticed the small sign out front, Evie would have driven right past the funeral home. The house looks more like a cozy bed and breakfast than a place for the dead. Once parked, she breathes in and closes her eyes. She presses the heels of her palms to her eyelids then looks again at the house. She gets out of her car and walks up to the once blue door of the stucco building. She takes another deep breath before pulling it open and going inside.
Evie follows the sound of Tom Waits singing “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)” to a room that has recently been sprayed with some sort of flowery air freshener. The carpet is the red of dried blood and the wood-paneled walls suck all the light from the room. The only person in the room is Letty Gordon, Billy’s mom. Evie feels even more jittery than she did while she was getting dressed.
She and Billy were together for over three years but she never really got to know Letty. They saw each other all the time but Billy was always with them. It seemed like he was the only thing they had in common. He never seemed to mind that the two most important women in his life weren’t close. Maybe it would make things easier if they had been.
“Hi,” says Letty when she notices Evie standing behind the back row of chairs. “They’re just testing out the sound system.”
When they’d talked on Monday night, Letty had offered to take care of things for Evie. Billy’s father had run out on her when Billy was still a baby and she’d raised him on her own. Letty knows how to take care of things.
Evie is afraid to open her mouth, certain that nothing will come out or maybe she’ll start to cry or babble. She walks up to Letty, and for the first time notices the stand on which an urn sits. The two hug for a moment—neither of them is much of a hugger, but Billy was. After a while, they pull away and listen to the rest of the song. When it’s finished they stand in silence.
Finally Letty speaks.
“It’s kind of warm in here, you want to take off your coat? There’s a coat rack…” She looks around. “Somewhere.”
Evie looks down at the tailored black wool coat that was one of the lavish gifts her parents gave her when she was living in college poverty. She starts to blush.
“What is it?” asks Letty.
“It’s silly. I was going to put on a dark blue dress. Then I saw my red dress hanging in the closet. Billy loved it and . . .”
“You thought he would want you to wear it?”
“Yeah, but it’s just so bright . . . and the neckline . . . ” She’s glad Letty understands but doesn’t know if anyone else will. She keeps on her coat.
“Sit down dear,” Letty says. “The service will start soon.”
Before Letty finishes speaking, Frances, a woman who sometimes played drums with Billy when he performed at bars and clubs, enters with her boyfriend, Stan. And then it begins, a trail of people Evie knows and people she doesn’t think she’s ever met coming up to tell her how sorrythey are and how wrong it is for a twenty nine year old man to be dead. It doesn’t help her to hear these words over and over again. She already knows these things that they tell her. Most of them offer to take her out for coffee or a beer. Maybe some food. Evie politely declines all invitations. She’s tired of diner and bar tables filled with silences and metallic words of comfort. The overwhelming suspicion she gets that her companions would attach a plastic clip with a tracking microchip in it to her ear if they could.
Evie barely notices the funeral when it starts. Letty gives some sort of speech and invites others to come up and say something. She sits down next to Evie and whispers in her ear, asking if she wants to speak. She does, but she doesn’t know what to say so she shakes her head. Finally the talking is done and Letty cues the music. Everyone listens to the song, and crying can be heard in a syncopated rhythm along with the music. Letty and Evie don’t cry. Evie has cried plenty since Monday night and she doesn’t want to put her grief on display.
Once the song ends the room clears quickly. Letty, like Evie, declines all invitations of food or drink. Released from obligations they may have felt, everyone else hurries home to hug their loved ones a little tighter before they slip back into their usual routines of rushing around with a million tomorrows to plan.
“You going to be okay to drive?” Letty asks after she has retrieved her CD and picked up the urn.
“Fine.” Evie says. But when she goes out to the car and turns the key, no amount of prayers or swearing can alter the fact that it simply will not start.
Evie is slumped over the wheel when a knock on the window makes her jump. Letty is barely visible in the rain that started coming down a few minutes before. Evie rolls down the window and is immediately soaked.
“I’ll drive you.” Letty says.
Evie is about to say that she can get a cab but then she thinks of home. Where Billy’s guitar is still out with the case flung wide open exposing its red-fluff-lined insides. Where Billy’s shirts lay in a crumpled cotton heap on the bedroom carpet. Where Audrey, the cat, has been giving Evie questioning meows ever since Evie returned from the hospital without Billy. Evie doesn’t want to go home.
“Evie?” asks Letty.
“I don’t know where to go.” She looks up at Letty and feels like a small child who needs someone to comb her hair and fix her dinner and tell her when it’s time for bed.
“Come on, I’ll take you to my place, we can have tea or something. You can call a tow truck from there.”
“Are you sure?” Evie asks.
“What am I going to do? Abandon my son’s girlfriend on the day of his funeral? What kind of person do you think I am?”
Evie smiles a little at that. She puts the window back up and gets out. She follows Letty to her gray sedan. Letty has the urn in the crook of her elbow and offers it to Evie. “I’d put it in the trunk but . . .”
“Yeah,” says Evie, “I’ll take it.”
Letty waits until Evie is in the passenger seat and buckled in before she hands her the urn. It’s brass and shiny except for fingerprint smudges and dots of rain. She ignores how cold and wet it feels and holds it against her stomach.
Letty gets in on the driver’s side and starts the car. She messes with the radio buttons for a minute but is only able to find talk and bubbly commercials. She turns off the radio and pulls out of the parking lot, eyes on the road, as Evie stares out the passenger-side window and thinks of Monday night.
Billy had been complaining of headaches for a few days. He’d been looking off to her, different, and right after dinner she informed him they were going to the hospital. She drove and Billy sat in the passenger seat, singing to distract himself from the pain. What song he was singing she can’t remember. She was too focused on driving at the time. If she had known, she would have tried to notice. To remember. What else has she already forgotten?
When they arrive at Letty’s house it’s still dribbling outside, but neither rushes from the car to the front door. They’re both already soaked, what’s the point in avoiding more wetness?
Once inside, Evie isn’t sure what to do. Letty gently touches her on the shoulder, telling
her to set the ashes on the coffee table and take off her coat. She points to a coat rack and Evie nods. She places the urn on the battered and polished coffee table, next to a pudgy little clay bowl displaying the tiny indentations of the fingers that once formed it. She removes her coat and hooks it on the chipped black metal coat rack.
“It’s a very nice dress,” says Letty. “Billy always had good taste.”
Evie smiles. “Thanks.”
Letty points to the phone and goes to the kitchen while Evie calls for a tow. The conversation seems to take forever but when she gets off and looks at the clock she realizes they spoke for less than five minutes. She joins Letty in the kitchen.
Neither of them ends up having tea. Letty has only black tea and Evie feels too jittery for caffeine. She has hot cocoa instead. It’s the powdered kind that has milk already in it, but Evie always adds milk to cool it down and make it creamier. Letty drinks instant coffee.
She sets out crackers for them, pale and stale.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any cookies,” she says.
“It’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
The two sit at the circular dining room table, which is really more of a kitchen table even though a doorway separates it from the galley-style kitchen. In one corner of the dining room stands a china cabinet with tea sets from various countries and well-worn cookbooks. The walls are covered in framed blessings like May you be in heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.
Evie stares at one of the cups in a waxy blue Japanese tea set and remembers when she and Billy got to the hospital. She told him to go sit in the waiting area while she went to the reception desk. While Evie was looking at the forms the man at the desk had given her, Billy came up to her and grabbed her hand. He said, “Evie,” and squeezed. Then he was on the floor. She didn’t scream, just got down on the tile with him, checked his mouth for obstructions, and positioned his head.
The sun reappears now, and the buttery yellow dining room brightens. Letty gets up to close the shade. It snaps back up after she sits down but she doesn’t get up to fix it. Evie examines the faded lettering on her cup proclaiming Best Mother in the Universe, as Letty quietly sips her coffee. The silence begins to press on Evie’s ears but she doesn’t have the words to speak first.“How are you?” asks Letty, grimacing a little after she speaks. As if she regretted her choice of words as soon as they left her mouth.
“Not well.” Which is true, but hardly the whole story.
Evie can get to sleep fine but she keeps waking up at two thirty, her whole body is on edge. She has to make sure the doors and windows are closed and locked. She has to assure herself there is food and water in Audrey’s dishes. She knows it’s not an unlocked door or a hungry cat worrying her, but she does it anyway. After she’s checked everything she can think to check, she can’t get back to sleep. She ends up watching paid programing until the sun comes up.
“And work?” asks Letty. “You taking time off?”
“I tried, but after a day I had to go back. It’s helpful, I think. The kids were so well behaved, I suspect the counselor spoke to them. They all wanted to give me hugs. It was sweet. And much better than watching television or cleaning.” Evie picks up a cracker and breaks it in half.
“You do that too huh?”
“Clean when you’re upset.” Letty pauses to take a sip of her coffee. “Tuesday morning this place was filthy.”
“Yeah. Except I can’t clean Billy’s stuff. I just vacuum or dust around it. I can’t even dust the headboard.” Evie’s cracker is now a pile of grit on the glossy Formica. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Gives me something to clean. Go on.”
“We always took turns dusting and Billy always did a good job. Except for the headboard. He’d always miss it. Even if I reminded him.”
“That’s Billy. He’d never keep a job more than three months or remember a holiday.”
“But he always had money when we needed it. And he never forgot a birthday that wasn’t his.” Evie takes another cracker. “And you, how are you?”
Letty takes another sip of her coffee and swallows slowly. “Not well either.” She finally says. “Cleaning. Planning the funeral helped. It’s hard to know what he wanted though, we weren’t even at a point where we felt the need to discuss what I would want.” Letty pauses and presses her lips together for a moment. Evie glances away and pretends to examine the heel of her shoe.
“I did take time off. I’ll go back next week.” Letty finally says.
Letty manages a hat store that has been around since the days when men and women wore hats everyday. The store still sells homburgs and fascinators, but also has a large selection of baseball caps and beanies.
“ I just . . .” Letty begins, “I always used to joke that Billy was the only good thing to come out of my marriage. But it wasn’t really a joke. I think Billy was the best thing I ever did. The best man I ever knew. I know that sounds like bragging, but I think there was so much more good in him than just what I taught him. He was the best thing I ever did, and he’s gone already.” Letty looks down into her coffee.
Evie bites her lip and wishes for a moment that she hadn’t felt too young for marriage, and children. It’s a feeling she can’t explain to a woman who had a nine-year-old son when she was Evie’s age. To a woman who might have had a grandchild if Billy had been with someone who wasn’t her.
“I think I want more coffee,” says Letty.
“I’ll get it,” says Evie and she gets up and takes Letty’s cup before she can speak. “What are you going to do with . . .” She gestures toward the living room with her shoulder as she picks up the kettle.
“It’s your decision, too.”
Evie shakes the kettle to see if there’s enough water before setting it down on a burner and turning up the gas. “Aren’t . . . Isn’t it traditional to scatter them in water?”
“Not much of that around here.” Letty sweeps up the pile of cracker dust with a paper napkin. “Just a muddy river and a couple of lakes, and I don’t think any of them were of any importance to Billy. Isn’t it supposed to be a place that mattered to him?”
They’re silent for a few minutes. Evie is thinking, thinking about all the places Billy will never be again. She wonders if Letty is having the same thoughts.
“How about the mountains?” Letty suggests. “When he was little he always used to beg me to drive up there. We’d go on hikes and have lunch, usually just terrible food we bought at gas stations. Chips, sandwiches from plastic packages, sodas. Candy bars for dessert. His favorite time was when it snowed. Snow always seemed like such a miracle to him. He was always very good at that—seeing miracles where everyone else sees inconveniences.”
“He took me on a hike in the mountains for our third date.”
As the kettle begins to wail, they both smile.
They decide to wait until it gets dark to spread the ashes. Letty figures there’s a better chance then that they won’t stumble across some hikers and have to explain what they’re doing. Evie agrees, she doesn’t want to explain anything to anyone right now.
They pass the time playing old board games that Letty bought for Billy when he was little and could never sit still long enough to play. They get through three rounds of Battleship, then start in on Monopoly, but quit before they’re finished. Once or twice people stop by with food that will get moldy and flowers that will dry out and die. Letty thanks everyone and sends them away after a few minutes of crackling politeness. Evie sits quietly during the visits and tries to avoid the looks of sympathy and concern.
Before they leave, Evie borrows some socks and a pair of hiking boots. The boots are a little small, but better than the heels she wore for the funeral. They get into the car with Evie again holding the urn to her stomach. The moon is fat and yellow. She stares at it and tries to follow it through the trees and houses.
Evie doesn’t know how long she gave Billy CPR, but eventually people in pink and blue pulled her off and took him away. A person in pink escorted her to a more private waiting room with softer chairs and less light and noise. Evie marked off time by the number of articles she didn’t finish reading and number of times she circled the room. Fifteen articles and 325 laps later a doctor appeared. She felt like the woman was hours late.
Evie knew Billy was dead, but the words still stung when the doctor said them. She thanked her for trying and asked for a phone and a phonebook. Her cell phone was at home, charging, and she couldn’t remember Billy’s mom’s number. She didn’t want to leave Billy alone at the hospital, even to go get his mother.
It was lucky there was only one Letitia Gordon in the phone book or Evie might still be sitting in the hospital right now.
She only intended to tell Letty that Billy was sick and she should come to the hospital to see him. But Letty figured it out before Evie was done with her lie.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?” Letty said.
She doesn’t remember saying yes. She just remembers the quiet.
The space between them that Billy once occupied was empty now and all that was left behind was silence. Finally Letty told Evie she’d be there. She arrived so quickly she must have ignored the speed limits. She directed the signing of papers. She even called some friends of hers to drive Evie home.
Evie doesn’t know how to thank her.
Letty puts in a CD and Evie realizes it’s Billy’s voice.
“Do you mind if I sing?” asks Letty. “I don’t have the greatest voice.”
Billy is singing “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards).”
“I don’t mind if you don’t mind.”
They both sing, quietly, but louder on the next song and by the time “The Weight” is playing they’re both loud and off key.
They stop at one of those hiking trails off the side of the road that goes into a wooded area and decide to walk as far in as feels right. Letty carries the flashlight and Evie carries the urn. Their feet sink into the soft ground and their coats catch on the trees. They pause to feel out certain places. They reject spots on the basis of a broken branch, a yellow granola bar wrapper, and one because they hear an owl hoot. Finally they reach a small clearing with a large rock in the middle that they agree is the kind of spot Billy would have liked. Evie gives the urn to Letty who sets the flashlight down. Letty takes some ashes and scatters them into the trees to the right. She hands the urn back Evie, who tosses the rest of the ashes to the left.
Letty slowly taps the flashlight on the palm of her hand, making brief patterns on the tree trunks. “I always thought if he did die young it would be something foolish he did,” she says. “Drive too fast. Jump too far. I used to have dreams of him taking a leaky boat out into the middle of a huge lake and going under. Boat and all. No splash. But a brain aneurysm? It’s so stupid.” She pulls in a deep breath like Billy always used to do before he’d start to sing. A breath that always made Evie think of being born or coming back from the dead.
Again Evie wants to say something. She knows exactly what she wants to say, something meaningful, comforting, and just right. But she doesn’t know which words might make up such a speech.
She and Letty listen to the wind in the trees for awhile.
“It’s over,” says Letty turning off the flashlight and setting it on the ground. “The funeral, spreading the ashes, the house is all clean, and Billy is finished. I keep doing things and I keep saying now what? There has to be something more to do or say. Something.”
Evie looks down at the empty urn that hangs from her hand. “I could trash your house if that would help,” she says.
Letty smiles up at the stars, visible through the frames of trees that have just begun to bud. “Thanks, but I’m very good at making my own messes.”
They both stare at the sky and listen to the wind as it grows bitter and rough, fighting its way through the break of trees. They breathe in the musty scent of dead leaves. After awhile, Evie picks up the flashlight and they turn around and head back to the car. When they reach it and start to climb in Letty says, “I bet what we did was illegal.”
They laugh so hard that they start to cry. Their faces are wet and they slap at the armrests and dashboard as they each struggle to get their breath back. When they finally calm down and buckle in, Letty admits what she said wasn’t that funny.
They sing along to the tape all the way back to Evie’s house. When they get there, Letty tells Evie to keep the boots and socks. She can return them later. Maybe they’ll have tea.
Evie’s house is dark, so Letty stays until she gets the front door open and switches on a light. Letty waves before she pulls away and disappears down the road.
The light fixture gives off a cheap imitation of the glow of the earlier moon. Audrey jumps up from her curled position inside the guitar case, leaps out, and saunters toward her.
Evie had put out fresh litter, water, and food before she left for the funeral. But Audrey still hits her with her angriest meow. Evie closes the front door and drops down to the floor in the entryway. Audrey comes over to sniff her and Evie picks her up, pulling her close.
“Audrey,” Evie says. “Billy gone.”